Guy Kawasaki on the Blogosphere

Guy Kawasaki Last month, Entrepreneur magazine did an article about Guy Kawasaki and Truemors. Entitled, “Truthfully Speaking“, it was a case study on Truemors, short for “true rumors.”

With only $12,000, the managing director of the VC fund Garage Technology Ventures launched Truemors with a partner in a true boot-strapping experience. So far, they’re reportedly breaking even by revenue earned from advertising and sponsorships.

But that’s not why I’m writing about this. I’m writing about this because of Kawasaki’s awesome & hilarious answer to the question, “What lessons did you learn from the launch?” (which is related to how some called his site “the worst website ever“):

The blogosphere is full of angry nay-sayers who are good at tearing things down but not at innovating. They should move out of their mothers’ houses and start dating.

Hahaha! That almost made milk shoot out of my nose.

Adversity Builds Character

Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross

We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.
– Blake

ABC: Always Be Closing. No, wait, wrong acronym. I meant: Adversity Builds Character.

Human beings are remarkably adaptable. We can adapt to some very adverse conditions, oftentimes growing stronger as a result. Take children as an example. Children who grow up in somewhat dirty environments tend to have stronger immune systems, while those in pristine environments find themselves getting sick easily as adults, as Kent Sepkowitz writes in “Eat Crap” (I would have called the article “Eat Shit and Live”, but Slate.com might not have liked that).

The same can be said of companies. So here are five adverse conditions that can strengthen and build character in a company:

  1. Not Enough Customers

    If you can’t find enough customers, then you will have to focus on satisfying and delighting the few customers you do have. Go above and beyond with stellar customer service. Not only will they love you for this, but they will be a useful source of suggestions and improvements too. Happy customers are a fantastic marketing tool.

  2. Not Enough Money

    If you can’t make enough money, then you will have to operate frugally and be intelligent with your expenses. Many a start-up has failed because it was too fat with cash and never learned how to be financially disciplined. Fortunately, you won’t have this problem. In fact, some experts believe that this is the smartest way to start a business.

  3. Not Enough Employees

    If you can’t recruit enough talented people, then you and your small staff can pitch in and do whatever it takes to succeed. All of you will learn a wide variety of skills, allowing for a cross-pollination of skills and potentially new efficient practices. This also tightens your staff into a finely-tuned team.

  4. Too Many Competitors

    If you have all these sharks circling the waters you, then you will have to learn how to walk on water. Having too many competitors means you’ll need to learn how to differentiate and offer something everyone else doesn’t. Competitors are good this way because they can keep you on your toes.

  5. Shrinking Market

    If your market is shrinking, then you will have to branch out to new markets. Even if the few customers you have left are utterly delighted, if the customers no longer need your solution, then you will need to solve a new problem for them. Take stock of your strengths, look for a more feasible market, and reposition yourself.

The Value of Software Engineers

dshen.com Dave Shen just wrote an entry that made me laugh. Not in a Haha What a Funny Joke! way. More in a Hells Yea That’s Sure True way.

He wrote, “It Sucks to Not Be an Engineer…“, and talks about the difficulty of trying to start up a Web-based business without knowing how to programming or having software engineers by your side.

For non-engineers, it’s a tough to build a Web 2.0 company without being an engineer, or having one as a partner. You could hire an outsourced engineering firm but that could run your costs up to $30k to $100k per month for many months. You could raise that but you’d need 6-12 months to build something.

Best bet: Find an engineer or two and bring them on board with your concept.

Second best bet: buy Ruby on Rails for Dummies and start programming.

True, too true. I know of a bunch of entrepreneurs who are searching endlessly for software engineers as well. Even those with growing businesses need more engineers.

Which means it’s a damn good time to be a software engineer. Hehe.

Don’t Be Afraid To Fail

A line that I try to live by:

I would rather try, and fail, than to walk away and regret never having tried at all.

You’ve no doubt heard the statistic that X number of new business fail in X years. Maybe you’ve heard that the number really isn’t that high, or maybe you’ve heard it’s actually very high. To clear the confusion, according to the US Small Business Administration site:

Starting a small business is always risky, and the chance of success is slim. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, roughly 50% of small businesses fail within the first five years.

The numbers vary by industry, of course. On the Web, they’re probably much higher—say 60-70% in the first year? (Five years in Web time is a lifetime and the barriers to entry are very low). But the conclusion is the same: You’re more likely to fail than to succeed (especially on the Web).

So my thinking is, if it’s inevitable, why fear it? Embrace it. And go forth with faith and gusto, as Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed, James Hong of Hotornot.com, and Robert Young of GigaOM all advise. In a nutshell: Failure is an option, have the balls to try, and bankruptcy gives you the opportunity to fail and start over again.

Young’s point about bankruptcy is actually a very significant one. “The ability for a U.S. entrepreneur to go bankrupt is actually the most important element of this country‚Äôs economic success and wealth,” he writes. How does bankruptcy do this exactly, you ask? According to Wikipedia, the purpose of bankruptcy is:

  1. To give an honest debtor a “fresh start” in life by relieving the debtor of most debts.
  2. To repay creditors in an orderly manner to the extent that the debtor has the means available for payment.

That means if you still have debt, but are out of money, those debts can be erased. This simple rule is part of what makes businesses thrive in the US. In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman argues that if a nation wants to improve its economy and increase the number of jobs, it needs:

…a regulatory environment that makes it easy to start a business, easy to adjust a business to changing market circumstances and opportunities, and easy to close a business that goes bankrupt, so that the capital can be freed up for more productive uses.

If you are starting your business in the US, you are in luck. You are in such an environment. Happy day!

However, this doesn’t mean you should go about your business in a haphazard fashion and take crazy risks. Failure may be inevitable, but at least be smart about it. Learn to build for it. Paul Hawken advises in his great book Growing a Business:

If you conceive and create a business where everything has to go right, one error, one mishap, can ruin a lot of good work. If you conceive a business where twenty serious mistakes could occur, and then you create safeguards to deal with some or most of these possibilities, you are creating a survivor. In the beginning, survival is more important than success. Survival is staying on the field, playing the game, learning the rules, and beginning to grow.

Another great book about managing and taking calculated risks is Anthony Iaquinto and Stephen Spinelli Jr’s Never Bet The Farm. It presents fifteen common-sense principles that can serve as helpful reminders in times of crisis, such as Principle #9: Don’t Spend a Dollar When a Dime Will Do, and Principle #11: Only Fools Fly Without a Net.

So there you have it. Don’t be afraid to fail. Embrace failure. Go forth with faith and gusto. But be smart about failure. Learn to build for it. And don’t walk away and regret never having tried at all.

Self-Marketing and Your Personal Brand

If you are an entrepreneur, your “personal brand” is very important.

What do I mean by your personal brand? BuildingBrands has a great definition of the word brand:

“A brand is a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer.”

A personal brand then is how people perceive you. It is the way they describe you to friends, the way they differentiate you from someone else, and the things they remember about you when you aren’t around.

Online Personal Brand

There are lots of ways to can tailor people’s perceptions of you. One way is through an online presence. Like a domain name! MikeLee.org is mine, obviously.

(True story: I used to introduce myself as “Michael Lee.” Then I got the domain name MikeLee.org and started introducing myself as “Mike Lee.” Yea, I know, I’m a geek.)

Here are some great articles on how to build your online personal brand:

If you create your own online personal brand, you will have more control over it. You can expect every recruiter to do a web search on you nowadays. I did this myself as a hiring manager. Don’t let the one search result of you be a photo on a friend’s web site—of you, drunk, nekkid, and puking all over yourself (I’m just sayin’). Let it be a brand that you created and tailored for your needs.

And if you have the time and energy, consider creating some content (e.g. blog articles, personal essays, free samples of your work, etc) and telling a story about yourself, as the above articles suggest.

Offline Personal Brand

Just as important as your online personal brand is your offline personal brand. Your personality and behaviors basically lay the foundation for this. And if you are an arrogant son of a motherless goat, well, then there isn’t much I can do for you. Anything you do online will be erased as soon as a recruiter meets you in person.

Self-marketing doesn’t mean you have to be slick and polished. As Entrepreneur Magazine’s article “Shut Up and Listen” writes: “entrepreneurs who practiced over-the-top self-promotion rarely captured the attention of others.” Sometimes it is best just to be yourself.

There are times when it is acceptable to be assertive about your offline personal brand. Like at networking events, conferences, etc. For those occasions, here are some great articles:

If you are nervous about meeting new people, the easiest thing to do is to smile and nod at another person standing alone. At any networking event, you are guaranteed to find a few people wandering around by themselves, eager to meet new people but unsure of how to break into an existing conversation. They are probably the easiest to approach.

As the above articles suggest, getting into a conversation is just part of your brand building. Your business card is an important part as well.

Also, if you promise to follow-up with someone, do so. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been impressed by people who remembered some tiny aspect of our conversation, then followed-up about it later. Those are the kinds of people you want to know. Those are the kinds of people who also have a strong offline personal brand.

A Quote From an Entrepreneur

I just started reading Never Bet The Farm by Anthony Iaquinto and Stephen Spinelli Jr. This quote from the book totally jumped out at me:

Who can be an entrepreneur, you ask? Anyone who wants to experience the deep, dark canyons of uncertainty and ambiguity and who wants to walk the breathtaking highlands of success. But caution—do not plan to walk the latter until you have experienced the former.
– Anonymous Entrepreneur

What a great quote. I wonder who originally said it.

Choosing the Right Business Cards

Here’s an interesting new problem. Without a full-time employer with a brand and existing stationary, I now find myself needing business cards for when I’m meeting new people and making new business contacts.

But what to use, what to use. Hmm. There are two that particularly caught my eye: MOO’s MiniCards and gapingvoid’s Streetcards. Many friends tell me to get VistaPrint’s Business Cards too, since they’re free.

MOO’s MiniCards

MOO For $19.99 US, plus shipping, you get 100 MOO MiniCards. They are smaller than normal business cards (28mm x 70mm) and printed on thicker stock. You can customize the back of your card with your own photos or ready-made photos. For your own photos, you can choose from your Flickr, Fotolog, Vox, Bebo, LiveJournal, Second Life, or Habbo accounts, or upload them from your desktop. These cards are especially popular among designers, artists, photographers, etc.

I must admit, I like MOO’s MiniCards. It’s a really neat idea. I did find it tough choosing which photos to use, however. So I experimented a bit: like photos of myself (I dunno, I thought people might want that to remember who I was?) to photos of funny scenes & inanimate objects. So far, the most popular one is a photo of a whiteboard sketch a friend made of me once.

The size of the MiniCards aren’t the easiest to deal with either. Since they’re on thicker stock, they don’t fit in my wallet or business card case easily. Since they’re smaller, I don’t know if other people will have an easy time holding on to them. But they’re still pretty neat and memorable.

gapingvoid’s Streetcards

gapingvoid For $29.95 US, plus shipping, you get 50 gapingvoid Streetcards. They are the same size as normal business cards (89mm x 53mm) and you can order them matt laminated for about $44.75 US. The backs of the cards feature cartoons (some hilarious, some odd, some irreverent) from Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com. According to the web site, these cards are popular among bloggers like Joichi Ito and Jeff Jarvis.

I like lots of Hugh’s cartoons, but most of the cartoons available to the Streetcards don’t seem to make great business cards for me. Some just seem… I dunno… weird. I haven’t gotten any yet; I haven’t decided which cartoon I want.

VistaPrint’s Business Cards

VistaPrint Cards For just the cost of shipping, you get 250 VistaPrint Business Cards. They are the same size as normal business cards (89mm x 53mm) and you can order their Premium Business Cards for $19.99 US (also for a pack of 250). There are 42 ready-made designs, though you can only customize one side of the card. Since these are free, I’m guessing these are popular among scrappy entrepreneurs and money-tight freelancers.

There’s a reason why they’re free though. Their ready-made designs, well, are kinda “eh.” To their credit, you do get a lot more design flexibility and choices when you pay for them—including the ability to add your own logo (but not background image), print the text horizontally or vertically, and choosing from hundreds of other designs. But after a quick browse through those other premium designs, I’m still left with an “eh.”

BTW, I noticed that after jumping back and forth from the VistaPrint web site and going through part of an order flow, I noticed that all of the prices have suddenly been discounted. The Premium Business Cards are now $5.99. Clever marketing move on their part!

Which of these business card printers do you like or use? Know of any other good ones?

My Office: The Cafe

Liquid Cocaine Friends keep asking me, “What exactly do you do nowadays?”

“Drink lots of coffee,” I tell them. Which—back in my roles as an engineering manager and later, a product manager—was what I mostly did then anyways.

Except now, my office is whichever cafe I go to.

It’s a great lifestyle. Sometimes I’m meeting with a friend to talk about business ideas. Sometimes I’m meeting with an ex-coworker to catch up on old times, plus talk about business ideas. And other times, I’m on my laptop, researching business ideas.

Some people quit their full-time jobs and jump into entrepreneurship only after they’ve come up with The Great Idea. A few of them even start The Great Idea while still employed.

Me, I took a riskier route. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. So I took my savings, calculated out how long I could survive on them, and made the leap.

I have a bunch of ideas too. Some could be great, some are mediocre, some totally suck ass. Not all are web-based either, though web-based businesses are much easier to start, because of their low capital costs (free software rules). So I’ll probably aim for a web-based business first.

But I’ve learned that ideas are the easy part. Planning and executing is the tough part. The relatively low barriers to entry for web-based businesses mean lots of competition. If you have a great idea, chances are, a competitor will sprout up a few months later. Being first-to-market doesn’t necessarily give you an edge. It’s more about having a great product, great marketing, and a sound business model.

That’s where all the chatting with friends and market research comes in. Who knows when a random news story, market report, friend, or ex-coworker could ignite an idea spark that leads to The Great Idea? Or more finely tune one of my existing ideas?

And that’s why I’m here, working in a cafe. My new office.